David Beckwith, who scooped Supreme Court on Roe v. Wade, dies at 79
“No decision in the court’s history, not even those outlawing public school segregation and capital punishment, has evoked the intensity of emotion that will surely follow this ruling,” Mr. Beckwith wrote in a magazine story headlined “Abortion on Demand,” which revealed that a majority of the justices had concluded that the Constitution ensured a right to an abortion, founded on a fundamental right to privacy.
The article was supposed to hit newsstands after the Roe decision. But the ruling was delayed by several days and Time went ahead with publication, leading Mr. Beckwith to scoop the court on its own decision — a precursor to the recent leak of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the right to an abortion. The court officially ruled on the Dobbs case in June, more than a month after Politico published the draft and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. ordered an internal investigation.
“In my little incident, no one had any mal-intent,” Mr. Beckwith told the New Yorker in May, recalling the origins of his Roe scoop. He quipped, “They just had the bad judgment to trust me.”
A tall, slender journalist known for his booming laugh and fiery intensity, Mr. Beckwith went on to serve as the founding editor of the Legal Times, a weekly newspaper covering white-shoe firms, government regulations and other legal affairs in Washington. He later turned to Republican politics, serving as the press secretary for Vice President Dan Quayle and as an aide or adviser for several senators from Texas, including Kay Bailey Hutchison, John Cornyn and (unofficially) Ted Cruz.
From his years as a Washington journalist, “he knew who you could trust,” Hutchison said in a phone interview, “and who you probably couldn’t.”
Mr. Beckwith was 79 when he died Oct. 2 at his home in Austin. The cause was lung cancer, said his longtime friend Tom DeFrank, a contributing editor at National Journal and the president of the Gridiron Club.
Although Mr. Beckwith’s story on the Roe case was not widely heralded at the time, it received renewed attention earlier this year as journalists and historians pointed out that Politico’s Supreme Court scoop was not entirely unprecedented.
As Mr. Beckwith told it, his interest in the case was piqued by what he called “one of the strangest stories I’d ever seen,” an unbylined article that ran on the front page of The Washington Post on July 4, 1972. The story said that there was “a dramatic last-minute struggle” over abortion rulings at the Supreme Court, with a majority of justices supporting a constitutional right to the procedure. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger dissented and sought to delay a ruling on Roe until President Richard M. Nixon could fill two vacancies on the court and potentially alter the case’s outcome.
Digging into the story, Mr. Beckwith interviewed more than a dozen people, including justices and their clerks. He told the New Yorker that he was aided by an anonymous source who requested that he hold the story until after Jan. 17, 1973, when the ruling was expected to be announced. That date was delayed by Burger — Mr. Beckwith suspected that the chief justice wanted to postpone the announcement until after Nixon’s second inauguration, for fear of displeasing the president — and led to the timing of Mr. Beckwith’s scoop.
The same issue of Time magazine featured another dramatic article by Mr. Beckwith, who had scored an interview with ex-CIA officer and Watergate break-in organizer E. Howard Hunt. His story linked two Nixon advisers to the burglary, Charles W. Colson and former attorney general John N. Mitchell, and infuriated Nixon, who ordered “a complete embargo on Time,” saying that no one at the White House could speak to the magazine without his permission, according to an account by lawyer James Robenalt, the author of “January 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever.”
Mr. Beckwith’s reporting on the Roe case similarly angered Burger, who visited Time’s Washington bureau with “a loose-leaf binder, three inches thick, detailing all the reporting I’d done,” Mr. Beckwith recalled in an interview this year with Time. “He feared that the integrity of the court was being jeopardized, and he wanted me to be fired or to be ordered not to spy on the court. He thought [the story] was the equivalent of espionage.”
Time’s editors disagreed, and Mr. Beckwith remained at the magazine until 1978, when he was hired by the husband-and-wife duo of Stephen and Lynn Glasser to serve as the inaugural editor of their new publication, then called Legal Times of Washington.
“Before the Legal Times, there had never been a general interest, independent commercial publication that promised an objective outside look at lawyers, particularly the big firms operating in major cities,” Mr. Beckwith said in an email last month, after Stephen Glasser’s death at 79. Mr. Beckwith recalled that “the first issues hit Washington’s legal world like a bombshell,” as corporate clients suddenly had access to second opinions on legal tactics and strategy, and “competing firms suddenly had a window into their rivals’ business practices.”
Mr. Beckwith returned to Time magazine in 1981 and covered law, economics, the Reagan White House and the presidential campaign trail before being hired as Quayle’s press secretary after the 1988 election. The transition from journalism to politics was a turbulent one: Over the next four years, Mr. Beckwith often found himself discussing his boss’s missteps and controversies, including a slip-up at a children’s spelling bee (Quayle made a student add an unnecessary “e” to the word “potato”) and his criticism of the single-mother title character on TV’s “Murphy Brown.”
“David Beckwith has a tough job, some would say the toughest in town: trying to turn around the image of the most ridiculed public figure in Washington,” Washington Post journalist Lois Romano wrote in a 1990 profile. The article noted that Mr. Beckwith could be aggressive — overly so, in the eyes of some journalists — in confronting reporters and their editors about unflattering coverage of the vice president.
“His passion was legendary,” said his friend DeFrank, who was then working as a White House correspondent for Newsweek. “He was so angry at the way the press treated Quayle that at one point he threatened to fire himself as best man [at my wedding] because he was so angry at the way Newsweek had treated Quayle. Happily, his wife and my fiancee got together and basically said, ‘Go stand in the corner.’ ”
“I have to say,” DeFrank continued, “in all sincerity, he was the best man in every sense of the word.”
The older of two sons, David Cameron Beckwith was born in Seattle on Oct. 30, 1942. His father was a typesetter, his mother a homemaker. After graduating from high school in the Chicago suburbs, he studied history at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1964. He completed a master’s in journalism the next year from Columbia University, and worked for the Minneapolis Star and Houston Chronicle before receiving a law degree from the University of Texas in 1971.
After working as a press secretary and communications director for Hutchison, who in 1993 became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Texas, he was a vice president of communications for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. He also worked briefly as a spokesman for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, before being ousted in part because he was seen as “too friendly with the Beltway press,” according to a Post report at the time.
Survivors include his wife of 42 years, the former Susan Blackwell, of Austin; two daughters, Fleur Beckwith of Seattle and Valeah Beckwith of Austin; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Beckwith was no supporter of the Roe decision. When Alito’s draft opinion was published earlier this year, he called it “a tour de force” while also worrying that the leak may have been intended to improperly influence the court’s decision-making, since justices could change their mind in response to public opinion. “But I’m still enough of a reporter to say the more information out there, the better,” he told the New Yorker. “Good for the guys who got the story.”